The Kanem-Bornu Empire

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About personal security in Medieval Kanem-Bornu:

“a lone woman clad in gold might walk with none to fear but God.”

The Kanem-Bornu empire is the name given by historians to the longest African empire to exist in the Common Era. At 1900, towards the end of the empire, only a smaller state called the Bornu empire remained in north-eastern Nigeria, which represented the territories from the late 18th century to 1900. Few would know that this later empire that modern Europeans encountered started in 700 CE (700 AD) and existed for a thousand and two hundred years.

In comparison, the Eastern Roman Empire, a contemporary state to the Kanem-Bornu empire lasted 1,123 years until 1282 CE from 330AD when it was established under Constantine. Likewise, the Holy Roman Empire established under Charlemagne as an imitation of the Byzantine Empire (the Eastern Roman Empire) in 800 CE lasted only 1,006 years until its desolution in 1806.

The Kanem-Bornu Empire was remarkable for a few reasons:

At its peak, the Kanem-Bornu empire controlled an area of 776,996 square kilometres (300,000 square miles), west of Lake Chad. For 2018, that would have covered Chad, Niger, north-eastern Nigeria, Libya, northern Cameroon and parts of Sudan. In comparison, the Eastern Roman Empire, a contemporary state, had a population of 5 million and covered an area of 1.050 million square kilometres.


The Kanem-Bornu Empire had a sense of history and, unlike the usual erroneous presumption about Africa, left us a large amount of records about its history including a Kings list. The early history of the Empire is mainly known from the Royal Chronicle or GIRGAM discovered in 1851 by the German traveler Heinrich Barth.

The Kanem-Bornu Empire produced a string of effective and talented rulers over a one-thousand-year span. One ruler for instance, Idris Aluma/ Alooma fought 349 wars and won 1,000 battles. Under his rule, highway robbery was tackled masterfully and rule of law became so reliable, it was said about travel in the empire:

“a lone woman clad in gold might walk with none to fear but God.”

Flag of Bornu Empire


Population of Bornu Empire

The population was about  5,000,000 people.

Kings List

Kanem Empire

Sayfawa Dynasty









Abd al-Djelfl-c.1081

1085 The kingdom converts to Islam under the influence of Zaghawa.

Hume-1085 – 1097

Dunama I-1098 – 1150

Biri I -1150 – 1176

Bikoru- 1176 – 1193

Abd al-Djel Selma 1193 – 1210

Dunama II Dabbalemi 1210 – 1224

Kade 1224- 1242

Kachim Biri-1242 – 1262


Dari-1262 – 1281

Ibrahim I Nikale-1281 – 1301

Abdullah I-1301 – 1320

1314 Increased aggression from Egypt and internal discord leads to the collapse of the neighbouring kingdom of Dongola in Nubia.

Selma- 1320 – 1323

Kure Gana- 1323 – 1325

Kure Kura- 1326 – 1327

Mohammed I- 1327 – 1329

Idris I-1329 – 1353

Daoud -1353 – 1356

Othman I-1356 – 1369

1370 – 1389 Internal struggles and external attacks tear Kanem apart. Six mais reign in this period, but Bulala invaders (from the area around Lake Fitri to the east) kill five of them. This proliferation of mais results in numerous claimants to the throne and leads to a series of internecine wars.

Othman II- 1369 – 1371

Abu Bakr Lagatu-1371 – 1372

Idris Dunama III / Umar Idrismi-1372 – 1380 Moved the capital to Bornu.

c.1380 the Bulala force Mai Umar Idrismi to abandon Njimi and move the Kanembu people to Bornu on the western edge of Lake Chad.

Omar I-1380 – 1388


Kade Alunu-1388 – 1389

Bornu Empire

Biri II- 1389 – 1421

Othman Kalinuama -1421 – 1422

Dunama IV 1422 – 1424

Abdullah II 1424 – 1432

Ibrahim II 1432 – 1440

Kadai 1440 – 1446

Dunama V 1446 – 1450

Mohammed II 1450 – 1451

Amarma 1451 – 1453

Mohammed III 1453 – 1458

Ghazi 1458 – 1463

Othman III 1463 – 1473

Omar II 1473 – 1474

Mohammed IV 1474 – 1479

‘Ali Gazi 1479 – 1507

Idris II Katakarmabe 1507 – 1529

Mohammed V 1529 – 1544

‘Ali I 1544 – 1548

Dunama VI 1548 – 1566

Abdullah III 1566 – 1573

Aissa Kili N’guirmamaramama 1573 – 1589 Queen.

Idris III Alaoma / Idris Aluma 1580 – 1617 The empire peaked at this time.

Mohammed VI Bukalmarami 1617- 1632

Ibrahim III 1632 – 1639

Hadj Omar 1639 – 1657

Mid-1600s, sustained by the reforms of Idris III (1580-1617), the empire now begins to fade.

‘Ali II – 1657 – 1694

Idris IV – 1694 – 1711

Dunama VII – 1711 – 1726

Hadj Hamdan – 1726 – 1738

Mohammed VII -1738 – 1751

Dunama VIII Gana -1751 – 1753

‘Ali III -1753 – 1793

late 1700s, Bornu’s rule now extends only westwards, into the land of the Hausa of modern Nigeria.

Ahmad -1793 – 1808

Dunama IX Lefiami- 1808 – 1811

Mohammed VIII -1811 – 1814

1814 – 1846 When the semi-nomadic alliance of Muslim tribesmen take over the empire under Mohammed, the Sayfawas return to the old capital of Kanem under Dunama IX to remain titular monarchs.

Mohammed el Amin I 1814 – 1835 Non-Sayfawa dynasty ruler.

Dunama IX Lefiami 1814 – 1817  Sayfawa ruler restored at Kanem.

Ibrahim IV 1817 – 1846 Sayfawa ruler at Kanem.

Omar / Umar 1835 – 1853 Son of Mohammed.

‘Ali IV Dalatumi 1846 Sayfawa ruler at Kanem. The last of the Sayfawas.

1846 Ali V takes part in a civil war in league with Ouaddai tribesmen. He is defeated by Omar and one of the longest ruling dynasties is ended. The title of mai is dropped for a more modest one.

Abdul Rahman 1853 – 1854

Omar 1854 – 1880

Bukara Kura 1880 – 1884

Ibrahim 1884 – 1885

Hashimi 1885 – 1893

1890 – 1893 The empire is conquered by Great Britain.

Muhammad el Amin II 1893

Sanda Limananbe Wuduroma 1893

1893 The Bornu empire is conquered following an invasion from eastern Sudan by a warlord

Origins of Kanem

The accepted origins of the empire start when a nomadic community of Tebu-speaking Kanembu settled in Njimi and established a capital there under the first Mai (king) known as Sef or Saif. The area already had inhabitants living in walled city-states; these were autochthons called the Sao culture. The Sao culture dates back to 600 BC.  The earliest kings pre-date the foundation of Islam.

The Sao culture already had skilled workers in bronze, copper and iron. The city-states had patrilineal societies united into one polity with one language and a common religious system. This contradicts the ludicrous ideas of Hamitic theory published as scientific work during the Trans-Atlantic Slave era that suggests all kings and organized political systems in Africa were the remains of Middle Eastern, Asiatic or Indo-European people that conquered black Africans.

KANEM was located at the southern end of the trans- Saharan trade route between TRIPOLE and the region of Lake Chad. This strategic location was both lucrative and attracted attacks from Northern neighbours for control of the Kanem economic role.

Housing in Kanem-Bornu Empire


The Bornu Empire built houses that were different to certain other African cultures. Due to the temperature of their location, they elected to construct buildings using red bricks.

Shift of the SAYFUWA court from KANEM to BORNU

By the end of the 14th century, internal struggles and external attacks had torn KANEM apart. Between 1359 and 1383, seven MAISREIGNED, but BULALA invaders (from the area around Lake FITRI  to the east) killed five of them. This proliferation of MAIS resulted in numerous claimants to the throne and led to a series of internecine wars. Finally, around 1380 the BULALA forced MAI UMAR IDRISMI  to abandon NJIMI and move the KANEMBU people to Bornu on the western edge of Lake Chad. Over time, the mix of the KANEMBU and Bornu, people created a new language, the “Kanuri.”.




MAI GHAJI ALI has been described in many quarters as one of the major kings under the KANEM-BORNU EMPIRE. This status was based on his achievements and leadership skills. Some Historians and interest group make reference to him as the founder of the “BORNO THE 2ND  KANURI EMPIRE”.


With control over both capitals, the SAYFAWA dynasty became more powerful than ever. The two states were merged, but political authority still rested in Bornu. KANEM-BORNU peaked during the reign of the statesman MAI IDRIS ALUMA(1571–1603).


The emergence of Idris Aluma was characterized by some development before him.

Some accounts recorded the reign of a woman known as AISSA KILI N’GUIRMAMARAMAMA. She was said to be the daughter DUNAMA MOHAMMAD. Some other accounts, mainly Islamic accounts, tend to give the credit to Abdullah who was also the son of DUNAMA MOHAMMAD. After the death of DUNAMA MOHAMMAD, his son Abdullah reigned for about a year after which AISSA KILI N’GUIRMAMARAMAMA took control of the Empire. She stood in for some years, as the heir to the throne Idris Aluma was believed to be too young to ascend. She reigned before Idris Aluma was mature enough to ascend to the throne in 1569.

The details of his ascension to the throne are not clear but Idris Aluma’s reign has been characterized as the best in the KANEM-BORNU Empire. BORNU EMPIRE reached its peak during the reign of Mai Idris Aluma.

Aluma went after the elements creating instability in the Empire and also those challenging his authority. He turned his military power on those non-Islamic groups that were revolting against BORNO EMPIRE.

He killed many of the Sao and the NGIZIM people, sold some of them into slavery in exchange for horses, arms and goods which the Empire got from the Arab world.

The remnant among those considered stubborn had no choice than to integrate, pledge and show loyalty to the Empire. This achievement brought a high level of internal stability in the empire.

Aluma knowing that the strength of any political entity during his time relies on the military, decided to strengthen the army. He re-organized and re-equipped the army for effective operation. He re-equipped the army with modern weapons.

Some accounts credited him to be the first Mai to introduce the use of fire-arms into the Empire. He got fire-arms from Ottoman Empire, Tripoli and the Arab world. He purchased MUSKETS, BUNDUG and other available weapons with which he equipped the army.

He employed some TURKISH MUSKETEERS and some MULLATO SLAVES to teach and drill his army on the use of the new weapons. The establishment of a Musketry Corps in the BORNO EMPIRE army helped to strengthen the army.

Aluma is remembered for his military skills, administrative reforms, and Islamic piety.

Aluma introduced a number of legal and administrative reforms based on his religious beliefs and Islamic law (Sharia).

He sponsored the construction of numerous mosques and made a pilgrimage to mecca, where he arranged for the establishment of a hostel to be used by  pilgrims from his empire.

Trade Routes Map of Medieval Saharan Trade (1400) by T L Miles

Trade Routes Map of Medieval Saharan Trade (1400) by T L Miles


KANEM-BORNU under Aluma was strong and wealthy.

Government revenue came from tribute, sales of slaves and duties on and participation in trans-Saharan trade.

Unlike the Kingdoms of Mali and Songhai in West Africa, the Chadian region did not have gold.

Still, it was central to one of the most convenient trans- Saharan routes. Between Lake Chad and Fezzan lay a sequence of well-spaced wells and oases, and from Fezzan there were easy connections to North Africa and the Mediterranean Sea.

Many products were sent north, including natron (sodium carbonate), cotton, kola nuts, ivory, ostrich feathers, perfume, wax, and hides, and slaves.

Imports included salt, horses, silks, glass, muskets, and copper.

Aluma took a keen interest in trade and other economic matters.

He is credited with having the roads cleared, designing better boats for Lake Chad, introducing standard units of measure for grain, and moving farmers into new lands.

In addition, he improved the ease and security of transit through the empire with the goal of making it so safe that “a lone woman clad in gold might walk with none to fear but God.”

KANEM’S expansion peaked during the long and energetic reign of MAI DUNAMA DABBALEMI (1203–1242) and the empire’s influence extended westward to Kano (in present-day Nigeria) and thus included Bornu, eastward to OUADDAI, and southward to the Adamawa grassland.

Decline of the Bornu Empire

The administrative reforms and military brilliance of Aluma sustained the empire until the mid-17th century, when its power began to fade.

By the late 18th century, Bornu rule extended only westward, into the land of the Hausa of modern Nigeria


The last Mai before the Fulani jihadist attacks was Mai Ahmad b. Ali (1791-1808). He was said to be extremely weak and later got blind. He had to relinquish power to his son DUNAMA when he could not hold on to it again.

The weakness of Ahmad did not help the Empire in the face of the Fulani attacks. The jihadist attacks completely reduced the strength of the Empire and triggered another development in the Empire.

Towards the end of the empire, the capital of Bornu Empire moved to “ GAZARGAMO”. In 1800s, the area covered was 129,499 sq. km (50,000 SQ mi) and by 1892 it was 50,000 km^2(19,000 SQ mi).


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The Kanem-Bornu Empire

by Editorial Team time to read: 10 min